therefrom a magnificent school of poetry arose, to which we owe works that for power and beauty can be paralleled in no Teutonic language till centuries after their date. To this school, which is totally distinct from the Icelandic, ran its own course apart and perished before the 13th century, the following works belong (of their authors we have scarcely a name or two; their dates can be rarely exactly fixed, but they lie between the beginning of the 9th and the end of the 10th centuries), classified into groups:—
(a) The Helgi trilogy (last third lost save a few verses, but preserved in prose in Hromund Gripsson’s Saga), the Raising of Anganty and Death of Hialmar (in Hervarar Saga), the fragments of a Volsung Lay (Volsungakiraða) (part interpolated in earlier poems, part underlying the prose in Volsunga Saga), all by one poet, to whom Dr Vigfusson would also ascribe Völuspá, Vegtamskviða, Þrymskviða, Grötta Song and Völundarkviða.
(b) The Dramatic Poems:—Flyting of Loki, the För Skirnis, the Harbarðslioð and several fragments, all one man’s work, to whose school belong, probably, the Lay underlying the story of Ivar’s death in Skioldunga Saga.
(c) The Didactic Poetry:—Grímnismál, Vafpruðnismál, Alvíssmal, &c.
(d) The Genealogical and Mythological Poems:—Hyndluljoð written for one of the Haurda-Kari family, so famous in the Orkneys; Ynglingatal and Haustlong, by Thiodolf of Hvin; Rig’s Thul, &c.
(e) The Dirges and Battle Songs—such as that on Hafur-firth Battle Hrafnsmal, by Thiodolf of Hvin or Thorbjörn Hornklofi, shortly after 870; Eirik’s Dirge (Eíríksmál) between 950 and 969; the Dart-Lay on Clontarf Battle (1014); Bíarka-mal (fragments of which we have, and paraphrase of more is found in Hrolf Kraki’s Saga and in Saxo).
There are also fragments of poems in Half’s Saga, Asmund Kappa-Bana’s Saga, in the Latin verses of Saxo, and the Shield Lays (Ragnarsdrapa) by Bragi, &c., of this school, which closes with the Sun-Song, a powerful Christian Dantesque poem, recalling some of the early compositions of the Irish Church, and with the 12th-century Lay of Ragnar, Lay of Starkad, The Proverb Song (Havamal) and Krakumal, to which we may add those singular Gloss-poems, the Þulur, which also belong to the Western Isles.
To Greenland, Iceland’s farthest colony, founded in the 10th century, we owe the two Lays of Atli, and probably Hymiskvtiða, which, though of a weirder, harsher cast, yet belong to the Western Isles school and not to Iceland.
In form all these poems belong to two or three classes:—kviða, an epic “cantilena”; tál, a genealogical poem; drapa, songs of praise, &c., written in modifications of the old Teutonic metre which we know in Beowulf; galdr and lokkr, spell and charm songs in a more lyric measure; and mál, a dialogue poem, and liod, a lay, in elegiac measure suited to the subject.
The characteristics of this Western school are no doubt the result of the contact of Scandinavian colonists of the viking-tide, living lives of the wildest adventure, with an imaginative and civilized race, that exercised upon them a very strong and lasting influence (the effects of which were also felt in Iceland, but in a different way). The frequent intermarriages which mingled the best families of either race are sufficient proof of the close communion of Northmen and Celts in the 9th and 10th centuries, while there are in the poems themselves traces of Celtic mythology, language and manners.
When one turns to the early poetry of the Scandinavian continent, preserved in the rune-staves on the memorial stones of Sweden, Norway and Denmark, in the didactic Havamal, the Great Volsung Lay (i.e. Sigurd II., Fafnis’s Lay, Sigrdrifa’s Lay) and Hamdismal, all continental, and all entirely consonant to the remains of Old English poetry in metre, feeling and treatment, one can see that it is with this school that the Icelandic “makers” are in sympathy, and that from it their verse naturally descends. While shrewdness, plain straightforwardness, and a certain stern way of looking at life are common to both, the Icelandic school adds a complexity of structure and ornament, an elaborate mythological and enigmatical phraseology, and a regularity of rhyme, assonance, luxuriance, quantity and syllabification, which it caught from the Latin and Celtic poets, and adapted with exquisite ingenuity to its own main object, that of securing the greatest possible beauty of sound.
The first generations of Icelandic poets resemble in many ways the later troubadours; the books of the kings and the sagas are full of their strange lives. Men of good birth (nearly always, too, of Celtic blood on one side at least), they leave Iceland young and attach themselves to the kings and earls of the north, living in their courts as their henchmen, sharing their adventures in weal and woe, praising their victories, and hymning their deaths if they did not fall by their sides—men of quick passion, unhappy in their loves, jealous of rival poets and of their own fame, ever ready to answer criticism with a satire or with a sword-thrust, but clinging through all to their art, in which they attained most marvellous skill.
Such men were Egil, the foe of Eirik Bloodaxe and the friend of Æthelstan; Kormak, the hot-headed champion; Eyvind, King Haakon’s poet, called Skaldaspillir, because he copied in his dirge over that king the older and finer Eíríksmál; Gunnlaug, who sang at Æthelred’s court, and fell at the hands of a brother bard, Hrafn; Hallfred, Olaf Tryggvason’s poet, who lies in Iona by the side of Macbeth; Sighvat, Saint Olafs henchman, most prolific of all his comrades; Thormod, Coalbrow’s poet, who died singing after Sticklestad battle; Ref, Ottar the Black, Arnor the earls’ poet, and, of those whose poetry was almost confined to Iceland, Gretti, Biorn the Hitdale champion, and the two model Icelandic masters, Einar Skulason and Markus the Lawman, both of the 12th century.
It is impossible to do more here than mention the names of the most famous of the long roll of poets which are noted in the works of Snorri and in the two Skalda-tal. They range from the rough and noble pathos of Egil, the mystic obscurity of Kormak, the pride and grief of Hallfred, and the marvellous, fluency of Sighvat, to the florid intricacy of Einar and Markus.
The art of poetry stood to the Icelanders in lieu of music; scarcely any prominent man but knew how to turn a mocking or laudatory stanza, and down to the fall of the commonwealth the accomplishment was in high request. In the literary age the chief poets belong to the great Sturlung family, Snorri and his two nephews, Sturla and Olaf, the White Poet, being the most famous “makers” of their day. Indeed, it is in Snorri’s Edda, a poetic grammar of a very perfect kind, that the best examples of the whole of northern poetry are to be found. The last part, Hattatal, a treatise on metre, was written for Earl Skuli about 1222, in imitation of Earl Rognvald and Hall’s Hattalykill (Clavis metrica) of 1150. The second part, Skaldskapar-mal, a gradus of synonyms and epithets, which contains over 240 quotations from 65 poets, and 10 anonymous lays—a treasury of verse—was composed c. 1230. The first part, an exquisite sketch of northern mythology, Gylfa-ginning, was probably prefixed to the whole later. There is some of Sturla’s poetry in his Islendinga Saga, and verses of Snorri occur in the Grammatical Treatise on figures of speech, &c., of Olaf, which contains about one hundred and forty quotations from various authors, and was written about 1250.
Besides those sources, the Kings’ Lives of Snorri and later authors contain a great deal of verse by Icelandic poets. King Harold Sigurdsson, who fell at Stamford Bridge 1066, was both a good critic and composed himself. Many tales are told of him and his poet visitors and henchmen. The Icelandic sagas also comprise much verse which is partly genuine, partly the work of the 12th and 13th century editors. Thus there are genuine pieces in Nial’s Saga (chaps. 34, 78, 103, 126, 146), in Eyrbyggia, Laxdæla, Egil’s Saga (part only), Grettla (two and a half stanzas, cf. Landnamabók), Biorn’s Saga, Gunnlaug’s Saga, Havard’s Saga, Kormak’s Saga, Viga-Glum’s Saga, Erik the Red’s Saga and Fostbrædra Saga. In Nial’s, Gisli’s and Droplaug’s Sons’ Sagas there is good verse of a later poet, and in many sagas worthless rubbish foisted in as ornamental.
To these may be added two or three works of a semi-literary kind, composed by learned men, not by heroes and warriors. Such are Konunga-tál, Hugsvinnsmál (a paraphrase of Cato’s
- Many of these poems were Englished in prose by the translator of Mallet, by B. Thorpe in his Sæmund’s Edda, and two or three by Messrs Morris and Magnussen, as appendices to their translation of Volsunga Saga. Earlier translations in verse are those in Dryden’s Miscellany (vol. vi), A. Cottle’s Edda, Mathias’s Translations, and W. Herbert’s Old Icelandic Poetry. Gray’s versions of Darradar-liod and Vegtamskviða are well known.